Australian Geographic

Parting shot

Now is the time for the Tasmanian devil and many other native species to be officially rechristen­ed with their Aboriginal names, argues MAURITS ZWANKHUIZE­N.

- MAURITS ZWANKHUIZE­N is a Canberra-based writer and is working on an encyclopae­dia of Australian species introduced overseas.

Giving the Tasmanian devil and other native species back their Aboriginal names

NAMES CAN BE as interestin­g as the animals they describe. In Australia they are often evocative and onomatopoe­ic, and have evolved from Aboriginal terms – names such as: bilby, currawong, dingo, quoll, wobbegong and yabby.

In recent years, I’m happy to say, there’s been a push for even more of our native fauna to have their Aboriginal names officially applied to them; these are often more appropriat­e, and came about through Aboriginal experience­s interactin­g with them.

Europeans arriving in the past few centuries bequeathed a multitude of their own names to these creatures, often doubling up with animals from home, using names of unrelated species that they were familiar with such as magpies, robins, cats, bears and moles. These labels of predominan­tly English origin are not only taxonomica­lly inaccurate, they also sound rather dull alongside titles such as wallaroo and quokka.

Names of Aboriginal origin are as endemicall­y Australian as the animals they describe and they also provide each species with a well-defined identity. Of late, several species have been rechristen­ed – these include the djoongari, formerly the Shark Bay mouse ( Pseudomys fieldi), and the rakali, previously the water-rat ( Hydromys chrysogast­er).

This is encouragin­g, but I think we can do much better, and of all Australian species, the one that is maligned by the unkindest misnomer of all is the Tasmanian devil. It is disappoint­ing that no Aboriginal synonym has previously been put forward as a replacemen­t for this.

In their book Tasmanian Devil: A Unique and Threatened Animal, authors David Owen and David Pemberton listed some names from Aboriginal languages recorded by Europeans soon after colonisati­on – these included: tarrabah, poirinnah and par-loo-mer-rer. Spellings vary and other versions include tardiba and purinina – this latter variation is the one that has already gained acceptance among some Australian­s.

‘Purinina’ was the name chosen for the Tasmanian devil by the Palawa kani project, created in 1999 with the aim of synthesisi­ng the vestiges of Tasmanian languages for use as a lingua franca and as a keystone for Aboriginal identity. Purinina: A Devil’s Tale was also the title of a 2007 children’s book about devils by author

Christina Booth.

I think it would be a very fitting tribute to now-extinct Tasmanian languages if at least one of their words became immortalis­ed in common parlance, and it would do wonders for the reputation of a species, currently dubbed with a name linked to a demonic mythologic­al figure.

As with Australian landmarks and national parks that have been given back their Aboriginal names, I would expect the English name to be used in tandem for a while, gradually diminishin­g over time, while retaining its historical and sociologic­al value. Unfortunat­ely, there’s nothing to be done about the species’ equally unappealin­g generic name, Sarcophilu­s, meaning ‘flesh-lover’.

As support for renaming grows, I believe that eventually many native Australian animals should be accorded the Aboriginal names once used more widely. Hundreds of birds with clumsily hyphenated names such as magpie-lark, cuckoo-shrike and quail-thrush would benefit from renaming. For example, the brush turkey would be reborn as the gweela, the grey shrike-thrush as the koodelong, and the malleefowl as the lowan.

The magpie certainly deserves a name as lyrical as its song. Considerin­g it’s a widespread species in a land of many hundreds of Aboriginal languages, there is no shortage of options to choose from. Perhaps a committee of experts, working along the lines of the Palawa-kani project, could decide, although personally

I’d choose the Nyungar ‘coolbardie’.

I hope that one day we might all sound as musical as the wildlife, as we walk through the bush and point out gweela, koodelong and coolbardie. And in Tasmania, if we’re very lucky, we might even be fortunate enough to spot the beautiful purinina.

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